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The Easter Night trade of Donovan McNabb certainly illustrates the NFL's unsurpassed popularity. In the middle of a rich sports weekend, with the Yankees and Red Sox kicking off the major league baseball season, the men's and women's Final Fours in progress and Tiger Woods arriving at Augusta National for the Masters, pro football delivered the piece of news that sports fans will be buzzing about today.
A Pro Bowl quarterback goes from the Eagles to the Redskins, from one side of a fierce NFL East rivalry to the other? Wow. There have been other NFL trades just as dramatic, but I'm having trouble remembering many.
The clear winners are the Redskins. Yes, McNabb, at 33, is slightly past his prime, but he is still performing at a high level and represents a major upgrade over Jason Campbell, the Redskins' incumbent starter. And obtaining him without giving away a first-round draft pick is slick. (They gave up a second rounder this year and a third or fourth in 2011.)
The Redskins have struggled in recent years because of owner Dan Snyder's heavy-handed involvement with the football operation, but he seems to have backed off since he hired Bruce Allen as GM and Mike Shanahan as coach – two guys good at their jobs. They've embarked on a "get better quick" program, bringing in vets Josh Bidwill (34), Artis Hicks (31), Maake Kemoeatu (31), Larry Johnson (30), Sean Ryan (30), Willie Parker (29), Rex Grossman (29) and now McNabb as the centerpiece. They aren't going to win the Super Bowl this season but they're going to be better.
As for the Eagles, trading a star to a divisional rival is ordinarily taboo, but they violated that commandment out of respect for McNabb. The Oakland Raiders also wanted him, but sending him there would have amounted to banishing him to pro football hell. They took the high road.
The fact that they dealt him at all is kind of sad, though. The Eagles have been a well-run, winning franchise for a long time with McNabb under center, and they had always stayed classy and backed their guy whenever Philly's fans and media reflexively blamed McNabb for failing to win a Super Bowl. But the team finally succumbed to the pressure, which has been intense since the Eagles cratered at the end of last season.
But it was the team around McNabb, more than just McNabb, that kept them from winning it all. It was, among other things, the eternal lack of pass protection that McNabb had to endure, and the strange play-calling that had the Eagles continually throwing on third-and-one. Huh? McNabb wasn't entirely blameless, but he did a lot more right than wrong. Seeing his well-run team side with the media and fans and run him out of town is, well, as I said, kind of sad.
What does it all mean for the Ravens? Not much. They just played the NFC East in 2008, so they won't see either team until 2012. Their fan base and those of the Eagles and Redskins overlap at the fringes, but I don't see anyone switching sides.
If anything, the deal drives home what a solid job the Ravens have done in building a playoff-caliber team. They don't have to resort to anything like this. The Eagles and Redskins have been around a lot longer, but the Ravens have surpassed them in many respects. They have a gifted young franchise quarterback. They had five players, three under 30, make the Pro Bowl in 2009. They've made enough smart moves that they don't have to act desperately, as did the teams on* both sides* of this deal.
Not so long ago, the Ravens made a similar move, obtaining Steve McNair, then 33, in hopes that he could provide a spark. It worked for a year as the Ravens won a division title, but then McNair got hurt, as older players often do, and pretty soon the Ravens were in the market for a young quarterback yet again.
They're in a much better place now. Generally, the teams that make mega-news in April are the teams with issues, the teams playing catch-up, the teams trying to fill major holes. This time of year, the sound of silence is preferable.
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.